On the Joy of Taxidermy
As research for our upcoming DIY Taxidermy manual, Stuffed Animals, (published by Countryman Press in the US), two of us from the Norton London office decided we would try a workshop for beginners. A Field Guide provides classes in London offering a variety of ethically sourced animals (depending largely on your level of skill and bravery) from moths to moles, guinea pigs to stoats and even two-headed rats. We decided to opt for the mouse — petite, delicate, slightly less macabre than some of the other options.
But is taxidermy as macabre as some like to think? Stuffed Animals resonates with the newcomer because it invites someone with no prior knowledge of the subject to immerse themselves in previously uncharted territory. This is a process that is admittedly complex but it’s enormously gratifying and, once you’ve been inducted, a process you’ll be dying to revisit. The gore is an essential component of the task but, after the initial revulsion, the joy of interacting with something violently alive prior to the extreme suspension it’s held in now is exhilarating. Is it a grisly, primal urge for supremacy over something that has no will to master itself beyond death? I don’t think it is. What I felt during our first class was a reverence for the small creature whose tiny muscles, bones and eyes had lived entirely unconscious of themselves, working seamlessly behind the membrane. We were setting out to recreate that semblance of seamless living, to restore it to a posture of gentle inquisition toward the world.
The workshop we attended had a bizarre venue. Situated at Boxpark in Shoreditch in an open top bar, we were well in view of everyone else who’d come for food and drink. Cue the strange looks and occasional disgruntled comments. But we eventually became so engrossed in the task at hand, we’d grown immune to outsiders. There is a slight thrill of doing something that divides so many — those who find it grotesque, even vulgar, and those who see it as perversely fascinating.
After choosing a mouse each, we were asked to make an incision along the back — or front, depending on whether we’d like it standing or curled ‘asleep’. It required us to make the first gory step and touch upon the boundary that divided the mouse as a soft-skinned creature from the mouse as an angry purple sac of organs. Peeling the skin from around the back and belly is tough — it sticks and you have to prise it carefully from the internal organs with your fingers in short stages. It was surprising how quickly we lost our mortification — after a few minutes there is nothing else that matters. All peripheral distractions fade until only this tiny body exists. It seems to act as a kind of agent for dissolving all the clutter, the detritus, from your mind for a few hours. It will return afterwards of course but for that short period of time, the mouse has claimed your absolute attention. In that sense, it’s serving a purpose beyond itself and the fact that it isn’t conscious to partake in the exploration of itself as we can is a humbling thought.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this? Is it less a metaphysical inquiry than a slightly ghoulish hankering for keepsakes that hark back to the Victorian era? To a lot of outsiders who observed what we were doing, it was just a scene of butchery. And in some sense we were butchers. We were using scalpels and knives — at some point an old toothbrush — to scrape the meat from the bones once the skin was free (inside out). The disembodied mouse lacks dignity in this stage as we’d disemboweled it, rooted out the eyes, the brain, the cartilage and everything else until just the skull and the leg bones were left to manoeuvre the expressions. A man sat and watched us, spooked by what we’d done. But the level of hilarity around the table confirmed something for me — that taxidermy is not a grim or sobering endeavour. It’s enlivened and restorative. There are mistakes but they resolve themselves (thanks to a patient tutor) but in part due to the perseverance it cultivates — not at any point of the four hours we’d signed up for did we feel slack-handed or jaded by the whole thing. The further you get, the more committed you are. Also, there is something inherently sombre about the mouse skin flapping about without anything solid to bulk it back up. You feel duty-bound to resurrect the little body — your hands know it intimately now.
After using borax powder to dissolve the last remnants of flesh, our tutor washed the skin in alcohol and we applied tanning oil to the insides with a paintbrush it so that it would preserve. Next we added small lumps of clay to the skull. This was to fill out the cheeks. I wanted my mouse to look and feel robust, almost portly, but lost patience with filling it — the clay was tricky to sit still. As a result, my mouse has a more streamlined, modest face. To fill the body, we had to ball up a piece of straw which was the same approximate size as the internal mass, then wrap it with wool with a metal wire through the middle, the ends hooked back on themselves for a tight fit. Most of us struggled to insert the new ‘body’ so that the skin could stretch around and meet at the ends again. Fragile as it is, the skin is incredibly resilient to clumsy fingers and sharp tools.
Four more wires were to be inserted before this stage, each one running through the centre of the woollen body to the paws for movement. Again — a very fiddly process. We were in effect creating a new makeshift skeleton with a great deal less complexity of the old one we’d dismantled. Then we sewed up the illusion with needle and thread. It was a final cover-up — this was the last window into the ersatz nature of the new mouse and it took skill to hide the artifice. Unfortunately, we were both terrible at sewing so this was bizarrely more difficult than the all the other stages. But it’s a soothing last stage — a pleasant way of returning back to reality. The final touch was the eyes. I made the sockets slightly bigger with the scalpel before inserting two black beads that brought the face into relief again.
I wanted a mount for my mouse but there weren’t enough of them to go round. My colleague had hers placed on a mount, complete with a little hammer in its hands. A DIY mouse — the crafter within the craft! I decided I preferred my mouse without a platform — I wanted it to stand as though it had just appeared and might move at any time, not confined to stasis in perpetuity (even though it was, I liked to keep the illusion of immanence intact). So my mouse is free of props. It haunts me in that sense. It is less of an ornament and doesn’t imply captivity. My family thought it was monstrous until I showed them the end product. It’s comical but there is a tenderness about it that — in spite of the brutal procedure which saw its face stretched into oblivion over the skull — I have managed to restore. That is perhaps the thrill of taxidermy — the pleasure of having restored an animal to its former animated self, with something of the taxidermist’s own spin on anthropomorphism — whether it’s suspended in playing golf, dancing in a tutu, tinkling at the piano or, in my case, standing upright to attention and poised for an action it will never convey. But your imagination fills in the gap and carries out the charade.
We concluded that taxidermy is a fascinating exercise in creativity and restraint. It tests your deft fingers (and eyesight) as well as your ability to convey a narrative through the suspended body. It’s an expensive hobby, but there is value in what you keep from it.
Stuffed Animals: DIY Taxidermy for a New Generation by trained taxidermists who teach classes in Brooklyn, Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato, aims to revive this interest in a forgotten pastime with humour and whimsy. No longer confined to the closet of suspect Victorian fetishes, this is an art that is gaining interest in the modern age, perhaps because it resists new technologies and relies on basic tools, a fundamental interest in the natural world, a yearning to create something that resists obsolescence. It’s a beautifully produced book with helpful terminologies and instructions for first timers. If you’re looking for an unusual new hobby that will relieve you from ennui, the humdrum routine of life, this one might just startle you and return you to yourself.